President Obama’s willingness to negotiate with foreign leaders despite fundamental disagreements has focused attention on Cuba, and the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago next week will be an opportunity to announce a shift in U.S. policy. The U.S. has imposed a commercial blockade and travel restrictions which have been in place since the 1958 communist revolution led by Fidel Castro. But the Cold War fears of a Soviet-inspired communist takeover of Latin-America have passed. The U.S. still objects to the lack of political and economic rights for Cubans, but the policy of isolation does not aid those concerns.
Instead, the time is right for new political relations with Cuba. As it has with China, exchange and trade with Cuba would bring more information to its residents, helping them to develop and assert their own political authority. Richard Lugar, Republican Senator and foreign policy expert, has long advocated revisiting Cuba policy. In a letter to Barack Obama last week he counseled the new President to, \”begin direct talks with the Cuban government.\”
The annual Summit of the Americas scheduled for April 17-19 will exclude Cuba representatives. While U.S.-imposed isolation made sense in the past, Obama must bring Cuba representatives into regional negotiations soon.
First, the President has already said that he will lift the travel ban for Americans who want to visit the island nation for tourist or commercial purposes. The ban has not weakened the Cuban government, and tourism and exchange will strengthen the Cuban people.
Secondly, the President should begin negotiations for an end of the blockade. The U.S. has some bargaining power here. The blockade has limited Cuba’s ability to industrialize and prosper. Strong negotiation should bring concessions on human rights in return for normalizing of political and economic relations.
The end of the blockade would be a bright spot in the otherwise bleak economic landscape. It would enable U.S. companies to trade with Cuba and begin investing in Cuban businesses. Canadian and European interests have been doing this for some time. While Cuba is only a small island and the economic impact on the U.S. growth rate would be marginal, an announcement of free trade with Cuba and the increased economic activity that would follow would be a welcome symbol of free-market-driven economic activity in a time collapsing private investment.